Monday, December 13, 2010

Somalia's Mystery Militia

This story caught my eye last week, Foreign Policy picked up on a piece originally in the Washington Post about a 1,000 member militia being trained in the Puntland region of Somalia, a militia mysteriously funded by an unnamed “Islamic nation”, likely from the Persian Gulf region, and employing at least one former GW Bush-era diplomat along with a former CIA agent. Supposedly the militia is meant to fight the Somali pirates who operate in the Gulf of Aden north of Puntland as well as in the Indian Ocean; Foreign Policy even headlined their story describing the militia as an anti-pirate force.

But the details of the story make that explanation a little suspect. Puntland is an autonomous region of Somalia that has at least something of a functioning government - unlike the southern two-thirds of the nation. And while there is piracy in the Gulf of Aden, the best-known pirate strongholds are along Somalia's lawless Indian Ocean coast; these are the ports where the big ships – the cargo vessels and tankers – seized by the pirates are held for multi-million dollar ransoms. Then there's the matter of the militia's make-up. According to the Washington Post, the militia's equipment includes several airplanes and more than 100 up-armored pickup trucks, but no boats, something you would expect to be necessary equipment for battling pirates.

People involved with the militia here repeat a true assessment of the Somali situation: that piracy will be defeated ashore by taking away the pirate safe-havens, not by chasing speedboats across a million square miles of ocean. But the “ashore” strategy means strengthening Somali civil society, installing a functioning national government and bringing law to these now lawless ports; something 1,000 men in 100 armed trucks can't do. What they can do however is provide security in a specific area of the nation, and that's where the story gets interesting. Officials with the Puntland government say that the anti-piracy militia's first target will be an Islamist militia operating in the mountains 100 miles inland; a militia tied to the more powerful al-Shabaab Islamist force menacing the Somali capital Mogadishu and with ties to arms smugglers from Yemen and Eritrea, but with no apparent links to pirates. This militia operates in an area of Puntland believed to hold oil and natural gas reserves – something 1,000 men in armed trucks could do a good job at protecting.

If that's the real intent of the Puntland militia, then fine, if Puntland has natural resources they can develop, and if developing these resources can help the region to become more secure and to develop economically, all the better; but it is cynical (not to mention inaccurate) to portray this force as an “anti-pirate militia.”
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